Home for the Holidays – Lena

Major holidays require significant motivation and carefully consideration when living abroad. Otherwise they will likely pass by unnoticed. The required intentionality is twofold. First, our children are third culture kids (TCKs) who have spent minimal time in their passport country and thus are not growing up immersed in the religious and cultural traditions that Brian and I draw on for memories and comfort. Even when Christmas is acknowledged in the country where we live, it is generally a novelty and doesn’t penetrate into every moment from Halloween to New Years. Without the insidious Christmas music, creepy shopping mall Santas or endless TV commercials pushing cheap plastic toys, holiday season for Bug and Noodle is mostly about slowing down, spending time together, eating delicious food, and going on adventures. Second, holidays can bridge connections with people who live in our current country of residence and deepening our understanding of their culture.

As single expats without children, Christmas once meant solo travel for Brian and trips home for me. Now, the financial hit of four long-haul tickets alongside the time-sucking 32 hours in transit (each way) and soul-crushing jetlag means limiting trips home to once a year for the longer summer break from school. The non-sympathy-stirring caveat is that we often live close to destinations that might be once-in-a-lifetime trips for others. However, given the pandemic and related quarantine requirements, international travel is out of the question this year. Being so far from home during such an emotional and turbulent time globally while actively adapting to a new culture might seem the perfect storm for homesickness, as happened to me last year. But the optimism of our most recent move and the desire to nest in our new home actually made this a very cozy and content Christmas. 

Expat teachers usually hop on the first flight out of town the moment school finishes for the holiday break, as we are quite burnt out by mid-December and ready to rejuvenate on a beach or re-energize by plunging into a brand new culture. However, this year most colleagues chose to stay in Tashkent for obvious reasons, so none of us was suffering from expat envy while imagining the adventures of our friends and feeling left behind. Instead, we played tourist by skiing in the nearby mountains, checking out restaurants, and rummaging at antique and handicraft markets. Moreover, it was wonderful to get to know colleagues better without the stress of school looming over us. Highlights included making Christmas ornaments with the kids’ friends, tasting our first pavlova courtesy of our friend from New Zealand who joined us for Christmas Eve dinner, and ringing in the New Year at very small and carefully orchestrated gatherings.

Because the children have now reached an age of unbounded curiosity, some of their questions and our insights can give a bit of insight into our uniquely expat holiday. Here are the gems:

Why do we have a Christmas tree?

First, it’s actually not always a tree. Pine trees often don’t grow in most places we have lived (or they are imported and offer grave financial and climate destruction). Despite the guilt about buying plastic, we have bought and sold several fake trees; they just never seem to make the cut for taking up space in the shipment. In Mexico, we used a cactus. This year we could have done a different potted plant, but we just haven’t gotten to that point of household decor. So we settled for a hybrid plastic beauty that offers two types of needles as well as berries and pinecones. As a former tree guy, Brian believes it to be a cross-breed of holly, white pine and blue spruce. Bug and Noodle had a blast attaching the color-coded branches. And we were humored that the combination of tree, grand piano and formal dining room applied to our own lives.

Second, the branches offer a place to display all the decorations we have picked up throughout our travels. The process of unpacking and hanging ornaments creates a special tradition of recollecting memories. Additionally, Brian and I are darn near giddy as we wrap and arrange presents underneath said holiday plant on Christmas Eve because it sparks our inner child and gives us satisfaction that we have achieved some level of parenting success this year.

Who is Santa Claus? Will he know where we live? How is he going to get in our house?

We have wavered about our strategic approach to the Santa part of Christmas. Both Brian and I have fond memories of the magic and anticipation surrounding St. Nick. Neither harbors the horror story of shockingly discovering he wasn’t real. It was a gradual thing aided by loose-lipped older siblings. We never felt betrayed by our parents for intentionally lying to us. It was just fun. And once we found out the truth, it was still fun to pretend. But wow, there are some strong feelings about the subject. Especially since our parenting and teaching are so deeply committed to respecting and empowering children. Psychologists have written extensively about the harm that lying to children about Santa can cause. This is supported by educators and parents dedicated to the Montessori method, which believes that adults shouldn’t expose children under six to fantasy, including Santa, as it can cause a range of negative effects. Others remind us that honesty and the true spirit of Christmas can be nurtured. The approaches we connect to honor the spirit of Christmas and are shaped most by the children’s questions and play invitations…with a little sprinkling of pretend from us.

I am completely creeped out by the Foucauldian watchman vibe of a certain approach to Christmas that uses a spying elf or Santa to scare children into good behavior. Gift-giving in our house is inspired by generosity rather than anybody’s naughty or nice behavior. Moreover, Elf on the Shelf requires way to much effort at a time of year when us teacher-parents are drowning in end-of-the-year professional responsibilities.

A dad we know offered to stop by our home dressed as Santa on Christmas Eve Day, and Brian and I wavered. Would it frighten the kids? Or take the lie a tad too far? We decided to accept the offer and see what happened. Although Bug and Noodle quickly realized that it was their friend’s dad, the squealed and reveled in the excitement. Obviously they left the Big Guy a plate of cookies before bed because that was our caloric reward for nudging them through the authentic literacy experience of writing him a letter. And the next morning, Santa’s name appeared on several presents under our tree – but definitely not the best ones because Mom and Dad are taking credit for that – and Bug proudly decoded the gift tags with he new phonics skills. When the children asked if Santa was real, we responded with our favorite teacher question: “What do you think?” And let them lead the way.

Why is Santa in Uzbekistan blue? Who is that lady with Santa?

Uzbekistan is a crossroads in so many ways, and holidays prove not an exception. We noticed that December brought modest holiday light decorations and tree displays that were familiar to our American frame of reference. But the Santa figure was skinny and dressed in blue, and his only companion was a beautiful young woman in a wintry princess costume. After questioning our local friends and a peek at Wikipedia, we learned that the man is not Santa Claus or Saint Nick, but Grandfather Frost or Ded Moroz (Дед Мороз). He made his way to modern day Uzbekistan via pagan Slavic mythology that influenced Soviet culture. He is similarly kind and delivers toys to children. However, diverging from our lore, the supporting character here is his granddaughter, Snegurochka (Снегурочка) rather than Mrs Claus or elves. And horses pull his sleigh instead of flying reindeer.

Due to the secularity of communism, Ded Moroz was temporarily banned in the late 1920s but eventually brought back. However, he was then reassigned to stand in front of the now called New Years Trees and bring presents on January 1 instead of Christmas Day. It should be added that Russian Orthodox Christianity celebrates Christmas on January 7 or 8 following the Julian calendar rather than on December 25 for sects of Christianity following the Gregorian calendar, not that the technicality has much religious implication since biblical scholars agree that Jesus was not actually born in the winter

Who is Jesus? Why are we celebrating his birthday?

Well, Brian and I are a bit loose in our religious discussions with the kids. We grew up going to varying intensities of Sunday school and got the gist of Christianity, but neither of us identifies strongly with the faith today. We talk to the children about God (as he or she). They know that the mosques, temples and churches they’ve visited are special places to pray. We describe praying as mindfulness and listening to our hearts. Things that we emphasis as sacred are family, kindness, acceptance of others and ourselves, and nature. Jesus fits well into this view. Bug and Noodle know he was a wonderful man who was kind and generous and loving to all. The one slightly religious tradition for our Christmas is cuddling up and watching the movie, The Star, which is a very child-friendly depiction of Jesus’ birth. 

Admittedly, this was not our best year for strongly emphasizing the giving part of Christmas. We did take each child shopping separately to choose gifts for the rest of the family. Also, they selected items to donate to our school’s charity drive for local children in need (and we involve them in events throughout the year). However, now that we are more settled in UZ and the children are at ages where they can more independently participate in many tasks, we are keen to weave empathy and charity into our family traditions not just at Christmas but throughout the year.

10 Days. 4 People. 1 Room. – Lena and Brian

When we agreed to take the charter flight to Tashkent, we knew a hotel quarantine was waiting for us at the other end. But we were so eager to get started with the next chapter of our lives that it didn’t really phase us. Until the van pulled up to the back of a midsized low rise hotel on a side street in middle of the city. We all hopped out, passed through a sanitation tunnel (which the kids thought was like sprinklers and wanted to do again), entered through a back door, and shuffled through a series of unlit grand marble halls to the lobby…where we were met by several staff in full PPE. There were only a handful of us checking in, and we were quickly led to our rooms.

We were met with a lovely welcome kit. Two delicious fruit plates with fresh peaches, nectarines and grapes. Bags of nuts. Adorable totes. Mountains of toys on lend by teacher families, which honestly saved our lives. And laptops and teaching supplies. Ah yes, virtual school started in two days – the reason we were here.

Luckily, the room was quite large, which allowed for all our luggage and plenty of extra space. Yet we knew we were in trouble when Noodle informed us on the first day, “This hotel room is boring.” He was right. No kitchen area. The TV had one fuzzy sports channel. The internet was spotty. And one entire wall was glass. The upside to the windows was being able to sit in sunlight for our daily  vitamin D boost and hang our heads out the window for fresh air. The downsides to all this glass were that we baked during the day and had an amazing view of…the parking lot. So much for catching a glimpse of Tashkent.

About an hour after arriving, the doorbell rang and we opened it to find four plastics bags with to-go meals. Everyone was so tired that we fell asleep without eating. Bug and Noodle woke up hungry around 3:00am, so we set some couch cushions around the coffee table and inspected the cold offerings. They were endless. A big bowl of soup, heaping mound of white rice, a dinner roll, some French fries, and a hunk of meat (for Brian and the kids) or grilled vegetables (for Lena). The food was not award winning but it wasn’t terrible either. Bland enough for the kids and seasoned enough for the adults. But wow, the carbs. Thankfully, Lena had insisted on bringing some healthy supplements from Trader Joe’s, such as chia seeds and flax meal for the oatmeal and kale chips and freeze dried broccoli for snacks. (It was a sad day when the kale chips ran out.) Starvation and malnutrition were not going to happen here.

Breakfast consisted of porridge, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, Laughing Cow cheese, packaged cheese slices, questionable meat slices, cold hot dogs, and apricot juice boxes. Noodle enthusiastically ate all four hot dogs every single day. And Lena’s overpacking was well-received when her preparedness brought forth Starbucks instant coffee on the first day and later a French press and canister of grounds. One cup of fresh hot coffee was worth all those baggage overage fees and a nearly missed flight.

The doorbell rang again, and Brian opened it expecting the lunch delivery. Instead, he was met with two people in full PPE carrying a large metal box. The one with the clipboard announced, “COVID Test,” while the other opened box and began setting up. Bug promptly went into full meltdown, and Noodle volunteered to go first. However, Brian took that honor. He wheeled the office chair towards the door, signed some official papers written entirely in Russian, and sat down. Although keeping calm, his eyes definitely widened when the enormous cotton swab was removed from the package. Later COVID tests confirm that this swab was not thin,  flexible, or designed for comfort.

Extremely uncomfortable and burning was how Brian described it. Noodle was up next. Brian enveloped him tightly, and despite some wiggles, the nurse was able to complete the test on her first try. When done, he burst out laughing because it tickled so much. Bug was distraught and cried before, during and after the test. He collapsed on the bed and watched as Lena had her nostrils swabbed. She also was not a fan of the test and ended up with a bloody nose. 

We needed to wait three days for the results, which would determine if we could leave our room and split up for online learning. While waited for the results and for virtual school to begin, we drew pictures, played with toys, watched fuzzy Russian League football, and made obstacle courses around the room. 

We had not experienced virtual teaching in the spring so this was a steep learning curve for Lena and Brian. Bug and Noodle had finished up their schooling in Mexico online, so that had given a bit of an idea of what to expect. The internet only worked in a direct line from the door to the desk, so after choreographing a delicate internet set-up, we were able to prep and launch the year. Lena and Bug worked at the desk, where kindergarten was happening, and Brian sat by the door with Noodle where he deftly used his mute button to navigate grade four teaching and preK learning. In an effort to make the first day special, we even took the obligatory first day of school photos with the Do Not Disturb sign in the background. 

After learning that our COVID results were negative, Lena and Bug were able to relocate to a separate hotel room with much better internet for the school day. They literally packed their backpacks, water bottles and snacks, and said good bye for the day. However, on the first day of leaving the room, Lena was warned by our liaison at school that the military guard working that day was not so keen on the arrangement and she should be cautious. Needless to say, Bug was tutored on being extremely quiet, walking quickly without looking around, and acting like everything was normal as they passed the elevator. He did amazingly well, and the guard was strangely not at his desk for the three minutes it took to scurry down the hallway. The way back in the afternoon was a different story. Bug got curious and forgot to whisper, and Lena forgot our room number since this was the only time she had left the room in several days. Thankfully, Brian opened the door and they ducked safely inside. 

Throughout our stay, our school community regularly checked in on us via Telegram, which is a replica of WhatsApp or WeChat. After hearing about the meals, Lena’s teaching partner sent over amazing hummus from a Lebanese restaurant, dark chocolate, and carrots. And after hearing that we were subsisting on water, our principal dropped off several bottles of beer and wine hidden within bags of chocolate, yogurt, crackers, and real cheese. 

Once school began, the days flew by. We kept as normal a schedule as possible with wardrobe changes, meals, playing, evening baths, and bedtime stories. With jet lag, excessive screentime, and the cognitive load of virtual learning – we were exhausted by the end of the day. The best part of our time in quarantine was when our school liaison called to tell us that we could leave the next day. The government had announced that the time was shortened from ten days to seven (it has since shifted back to ten, then to fourteen, and now to quarantine at home). As homeless newbies with nowhere to go, our principal graciously housed us and our mountain of luggage for several days while we put the details of our life together.

I Just Want To Go Home – Lena and Brian

“I just want to go home!” Bug sobbed recently as we cuddled his sad little body. We looked at each other over his head, not knowing how to respond. Which home did he mean? Was it China, Mexico, the US, or perhaps even Mozambique?

It had been a difficult decision to return to the US and leave our new life in Sayulita once the pandemic finally reached Mexico. We were just starting to deepen connections and melt into the contours of our lives. However, the truth is the life we loved ended with the quarantine. Before official mandates in Mexico, we chose to social-distance alongside our families in California and Arizona, so the kids had not been to school or played with friends for many weeks. We weren’t going to restaurants or running into friends around town.

Although Sayulita did not officially have any COVID19 cases at that time and the Mexican government was slow to implement social distancing measures, our town was thankfully locked down by The Gavilanes Vigilantes, a group of local citizens who somewhat officially maintain the peace. Energy was positive but uncertain. We were helping to feed families in need and financially support local businesses. We bonded with other isolated expat families through WhatsApp groups. And we escaped to the jungle for magical hikes to secluded beaches. However, the reality of the pandemic began to feel more real as beaches were closed, state checkpoints were set up between Nayarit and Jalisco, international borders closed, and flights were canceled. We started to become concerned about how and when we would be able to get home and onward to Uzbekistan. When the virus first appeared, we watched our international teaching friends get stranded in Asia. With the long game in mind, we knew we could not get stuck in Mexico. We’d already lost one job this year and couldn’t afford to lose another.

Our original plan had been to drive home because we had accumulated stuff and needed a car in the US. But both the states of Nayarit and Sinaloa had closed hotels, and we were concerned about safety. Although we wanted to avoid flying – especially because the airport in Puerto Vallarta had recently been flooded with tourists and expats rushing to get home before travel restrictions – we were running out of time. Within a week, we sold our car, golf cart, kitchen appliances, camping gear, and donated tons of toys and clothes. It was a mad dash to pack and catch the only remaining flight to Phoenix (which was canceled the following week). 

Masked and doused in hand sanitizer, we boarded a nearly empty flight. Including the four of us, there was a grand total of 9 passengers on the plane. We were nervous about entering the US after all the hype, but there were no lines at Customs, no questions, no temperature checks, no interview about quarantine. The airport was dark and deserted, and we wandered around a bit looking for the parking garage where Brian’s mom had left us her car. Due to health concerns in Brian’s family, there really wasn’t any point staying in Phoenix because we couldn’t interact with anyone even after our initial quarantine. Since his family wouldn’t be leaving their homes any time in the near future, they very generously lent us a car. 

Upon finding the car and hidden key, we had our first wardrobe change and began the Tetris game of cramming our stuff – including two huge carseats – into the tiny vehicle. It took an hour. Then we found the SIM cards Mimi had left for us and spent twenty minutes on the phone with T-Mobile so we could be in communication and access maps while driving to San Francisco. When it was finally time to get on the road, Bug and Noodle were extremely unpleased with us. It only slightly had something to do with us breaking Noodle’s toy guitar during the luggage transition. Thankfully, Mimi had packed us a kit, so we pumped the kids full of peanut butter sandwiches and gold fish. Welcome to America. 

Despite the risk of staying in a hotel, we knew the kids couldn’t do the drive in one push. We decided to break up the twelve hours to San Francisco with a stopover in Palm Springs. Not the fashionable getaway one might imagine. A very short stay limited to the car and the hotel room. So after another wardrobe change, we brandished Bug and Noodle with disinfectant wipes (thanks again to Mimi’s kit) and set them loose. Of course Lena was right behind double wiping door knobs, toilet handles and remote controls. But we couldn’t wipe the sheets or the couch. Everything we touched felt like a potential exposure and we were on edge.

Driving through the Sierras the next morning was a special reprieve as they were covered in colorful swaths of wildflowers and capped with snow. Although far away on peaks, the kids were excited to to see snow for the first time and inundated us with questions about the “snow gear” they would need to climb to the summits. Little did they know that their parents had been fantasizing about a long term plan to section hike the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail, a through hike from Mexico to Canada that paralleled some of our driving route) as a family someday. Similar to those hiking in the mountains alongside us, we survived the road trip on junk food and stopped occasionally to run around in fields and attend to nature calls outside the confines of public toilets. As the roads were empty except for trucks fulfilling the frenzy of online orders (which we would shortly contribute to), we made excellent time.

Our next stop on the Thomsper Displaced Tour of 2019-2020 was Lena’s sister’s house in San Francisco. She was not there as her clan was riding out the shelter-in-place restrictions in the isolated winter wonderland of Montana. This meant we had their house to ourselves for a month. The space was kid-friendly, well-stocked and full of natural light. It was also wonderful to just leave the back door open for the kids to run free in the fenced backyard while we were strictly quarantining for our first 14 days back. Socially distanced stoop visits worked well for Lena and Bug’s birthday parties, as we sat at the top of the stairs and guests stayed at the bottom. And we regularly took advantage of urban hikes and open green spaces throughout the city. 

Sadly, we had to relocate again when Tía and family returned. It was decided that two families with four toddlers and one on the way (not ours!) was just a tad too much. It was bittersweet to move 45 minutes away from family and our stoop visits, but we are quickly adjusting to dreamy suburban life in Marin County. After some adjustments to make the space more kid-friendly and copious cuddles as the boys acclimated to yet another home that wasn’t theirs, they have grown to love deer sightings in the large backyard, bike riding on the quiet streets, and hiking through the magical forests that surround us. Treks into town for gelato are also a plus.

This year has been quite the ride. Failed move to Moscow. Scrambling to figure out where we were going to spend our year on not off. Locking down and relocating internationally during a global pandemic. Staying in two different houses once we returned to the US. And waiting to find out when we will be able to get to Uzbekistan. We have learned and relearned about the importance of resilience and focusing on the blessings in the present. But we have also realized how desperately our children are needing a place to call “home.” This is the endless dilemma of the expat life.